Common Cause was extremely disappointed that The Post did not provide more useful public information about recent efforts in the Maryland House of Delegates to limit campaign contributions by political action committees (PACs). Instead of following the progress of this serious reform legislation, The Post was content to wait until a 42-81 defeat provided copy for a colorful post mortem.
Many of us remember the 1970s, when top Maryland elected officials faced indictments for taking money from special interests in return for political favors. Barely a decade later, Maryland's elected officials are again taking money from representatives of special interests who want special favors, but the new system is legal.
How can that be? In 1976, despite public outrage over Maryland's scandals, the General Assembly voted to remove all existing limits on PAC contributions to candidates for state or local office. Corporations, unions and individuals must abide by reasonable campaign contribution limits. In 18 other states, PACs must abide by limits. In Maryland, PACs have no limit.
After the General Assembly created its special "PACs break," the number of Maryland PACs more than quadrupled: just 50 in the 1978 election, over 200 in the 1982 election. Spending more than tripled: The top 10 PACs stuffed over $550,000 into 1982 campaign coffers, but barely $150,000 into 1978 coffers. The latest escalation of Maryland PAC action comes from the Chamber of Commerce, which set up a special "educational" subsidiary in 1983 aimed at creating 150 new PACs, with $500,000 to spend, in time for the 1986 campaigns.
And 1985 brings us the latest fashion in PACs Marylandia: aggressive fundraising during the General Assembly session. This year, during the 90 days when they're supposed to be concentrating on the state's business, incumbent legislators, in growing numbers, are concentrating on raising money for their next race. They use the list of registered lobbyists to mail out fund-raiser tickets (numbered, so you know who's buying and who isn't). The special-interest lobbyists, whose clients have legislation still awaiting votes in committees or on the House or Senate floor, buy the tickets with their clients' PAC money. What they purchase, according to former House speaker John Hanson Briscoe, is "that 'help you out if I ever have to' feeling."
Is the PAC money that's fattening campaign treasuries really like the scandals of the '70s? Consider Justice Rehnquist's definition of corruption in the March 18 Supreme Court decision that reconfirmed the constitutionality and appropriateness of PAC contribution limits: "Corruption is a subversion of the political process. Elected officials are influenced to act contrary to their obligations of office by the prospect of financial gain to themselves or infusions of money into their campaigns. The hallmark of corruption is the financial quid pro quo: dollars for political favors."
Some legislators claim that Maryland's PACs break was unintended -- an unforeseen consequence of an attempt to loosen up another area of the law. But, accident or no, it's been there for nine years, and it's clearly having insidious effects.
So, what did the members of the House of Delegates say to a bill that would replace a cap on PACs? They didn't argue that PACs are good. They didn't argue that we should retain the current situation. They fairly fell over each other in their zeal to exclaim, "This is too complicated! We don't understand!"
We deserve more from our elected representatives -- and from the press.